“Alright mate!” he says, welcoming me in an affable, if slightly self-conscious fashion. We shake hands and he begins to chat easily, walking with me to the local pub and telling me about the history of the tiny Welsh town, and his smallholding some 20 minutes away.
Nick Griffin’s manner is charming and urbane, at odds with the surroundings and local pensioners around us. Clearly well-educated, and other than a slightly odd stare – the result of a firearms accident which left him with a glass eye – he seems a little like a schoolteacher or country squire. A pillar of the community, perhaps, as he likes to describe himself.
Yet Griffin, 40, has a controversial past and possibly even more controversial future. For he is hoping to create a political earthquake. Widely tipped as the next leader of the British National Party (BNP), the UK’s principal far right political organisation, Griffin is looking to shake up the Right and put the BNP on the electoral map.
“If we managed to produce one MEP,” he tells me animatedly, “if you think of the fuss Derek Beackon (the BNP’s first and only councillor) caused with one tiny council seat on the Isle of Dogs, one MEP would really be something utterly spectacular; an historical earthquake.”
When you first heard of the BNP, it may have been as blows were being traded between left and right wing gangs down in Millwall, south-east London, following Derek Beackon’s electoral success in 1993. Although this was short-lived, the reverberations were felt throughout the local community; racist attacks went up some 300 percent in the three months after the election. More recently it was linked with the London nailbombings, after it was revealed that the suspect had once belonged to the BNP's east London branch.
However, as the party’s self-styled “director of publicity”, Griffin has come out of political exile and is talking of “the electoral road opening up”. He hopes that this Thursday’s European elections will give the party a huge boost and shake off the violent, nazi images of the past. These are the first national elections to be held under proportional representation, a system which usually offers smaller parties a greater chance of a seat but, more crucially, the funding for publicity. Up to 30 million people will have read BNP mailings and seen its TV broadcast on 21 May -- paid for by the taxpayer. This, for Griffin, is key. “Such a huge throw out of publicity will inevitably produce a serious crop of recruits.”
The BNP has been around since 1982 yet has never managed to break out of the political wilderness. Its uncompromising stance on racism, insistence on forcible repatriation for non-whites, anti-semitism, and the violence of many attracted into its ranks – plus shambolic organisation – have so far kept it to the fringes of British politics.
Matthew Collins, a member of the NF and undercover mole for investigative magazine Searchlight, remembers walking into its 1991 annual rally and being told: “Welcome to the Nuremberg Rally, Bethnal Green style!” He added that: “The bar emptied out onto the floor, and the audience was whipped into a frenzy by chants of “Leader, Leader, Leader!” which turned into foot-stomping in time to “Fuhrer, Fuhrer, Fuhrer!” He also recalls a vicious attack on a public meeting in Welling Library in 1990, during which a well-known BNP member stamped on a local Labour councillor’s face.
To your average member of the public, the BNP’s supporter is more likely this Sieg-Heiling skinhead than the small businessman or graduate which Griffin tells me he is now so keen to attract. A difficult image problem, given that the party also spawned the ultra-violent terrorist gang, Combat 18, at the beginning of the decade.
“The party’s not running on all cylinders,” admits Griffin, tucking in with gusto as we sit down to a Thai meal. Between mouthfuls, he adds that: “We need to shake out the dead wood...[people like] the beer patriots.” Meaning? “Those that are inefficient will be replaced by those that are,” he states simply.
The idea is to shed the old, East End image and appeal to other, more respectable elements of the community. Griffin believes that the traditional supporters have left the cities and formed “white flight” areas in the suburbs and in rural communities: “You can’t go into a village round here without meeting someone with a Birmingham accent,” he says. “And if you talk to them for five minutes, they make clear they left because of what was happening, in ethnic terms, where they used to live.”
One of the main changes is likely to be a public dropping of its forcible repatriation [of immigrants] policy, although Griffin privately maintains – like many – that he still agrees with the line. “It’s a vote loser,” he says, sitting back in his seat. “It’s one of the main obstacles to becoming acceptable and electable.”
To this end, the ex-chairman of the NF has been quietly building a power base within the BNP, ready for a leadership challenge after the June elections. Current leader John Tyndall is well into his sixties, and rumours of Griffin’s imminent rise are rife in the pubs and men’s clubs frequented by BNP supporters.
Under Griffin’s guidance, the party has already begun to lobby farmers and rural communities, disenchanted by the BSE crisis and a huge drop in farming revenues. Last year a BNP publication called The British Countryman spoke out against the the big bosses supposedly running the National Farmers Union (NFU) and a hostile European agenda.
A typical headline from one of its issues runs: “The ‘Silent Majority’ Finds Its Voice Again!” claiming that “Middle Britain is waking up! We’re sick of...New Labour’s attacks on country sports, on farmers, on the green belt, on cottage hospitals and on our children’s right to a traditional education.”
In another A5 leaflet which Griffin sent me, called “Who Is Culling Britain’s Farmers?” he talks of cuts in support grants, pressure against exports, the BSE crisis and the power of “economic and political lobbies which [want] the destruction of the family farm”. He targets the supermarkets, so-called ‘free trade’ politicians, the EU and large landowners as responsible. The leaflet speaks of the BNP as the 'British Farmers' Party'.
The BNP would institute a dearer-food policy, according to Griffin, to protect native farming, and withdraw from both the Common Agricultural Policy and EU. This language can, at first, sound persuasive and seductive: “Some of them [the farmers] are literally suicidal,” he says in his soft, animated tones. “In part because they can see no hope and also because there’s nothing they can do to regain some self-respect.” He pauses and shifts self-consciously, for effect: “But we can provide that.”
About a dozen BNP members attended the Countryside Alliance rally in London’s Hyde Park last spring, and BNP members joined a march held in Blackpool during the Labour Party conference last year. And in January this year 12 BNP members were removed from a rally of pig farmers held in London.
“They have apparently turned up at livestock markets in the past year,” says the NFU’s head of parliamentary affairs, Barney Holbeche. “I subsequently learned after the event that there was a big group of them at Blackpool football club on 27 September last year. Had I known it, I would have shown them to the door. Presumably the British National Party think they can somehow take advantage of the undoubtedly dire state of British agriculture at the moment, and people going out of business, and perhaps stoke up some xenophobic resentment towards Brussels – which seems to me to be a pretty cheap way of garnering votes. But that’s what they’re about. We certainly hold no candle for them in any sense whatsoever.”
The BNP has been spreading into other causes which might be vote winners. Last year, under Griffin’s direction, it led an anti-paedophile campaign against convicted child-killer Sidney Cooke, and handed out leaflets on the issue on several estates; tried to link up with the anti-roads movement, in a ‘Stop The Building’ crusade, as well as the ‘Save Our Sterling’ anti-monetary union campaign; it also set up a Media Monitoring Unit, under Griffin’s direct control, to refute accusations that the party is “nazi” or “fascist” (something that Griffin admits continually holds it back). And it has even courted the remnants of the National Front, in order to secure the infamous NF name.
The model is inspired by the phenomenal success of far right groups abroad, particularly Europe – Jean Marie le Penn’s Front National (FN) in France, which also saw a power struggle between the old and new guard, and Jörg Haider’s phenomenally successful Freedom Party in Austria. In the USA, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke tried to reinvent himself as a mainstream politician, and was nearly elected the Republican Governor of Louisiana in 1989. Furthermore, in Australia, chip shop owner Pauline Hanson achieved notoriety with her One Nation Party in recent elections.
In France, for example, the FN attracts some 15 percent of the national vote. It holds over 2,000 local council seats and polled some 4.5 million votes during the last general election. One Nation managed to secure 11 seats in Queensland’s 89-seat parliament last year, taking 22.67 percent of the vote. However, the BNP polled a total of only 25,000 votes in our May 1997 general election, which shows just how far it has to go in order to break out of the wilderness.
So is Griffin trying to ape the FN’s success? “I wouldn’t say ape them. It’s a matter of looking at what they’ve done and looking for parallels. For example, they’ve got a very effective paramilitary operation in France, which is regarded as completely normal and legal. That level of militancy is not part of the British tradition, so we’re not trying to copy it.”
But I ask him if it’s realistic to hope for the FN’s level of success? Surely the Right’s fractious nature will always hold it back? He admits that until it has one real success, it will have difficulty raising its profile. “A senior member of the FN told me that the first 10 years are like crossing the desert.” But I point out that the BNP has been around for 17 years. He coughs, embarrassedly. “It’s a long desert! We can take a few more years yet.”
In fact, when I met him, Griffin had just returned from an FN-sponsored international fair in France, and talked enthusiastically of One Nation’s success and his hopes to go on a speaking tour to Australia later in the year (which the Australian government has now refused). Of One Nation he says: “They’ve sprung from nowhere to become a serious political force – and we’re not nowhere. We’re far in advance of where Hanson and her party were a year ago.”
As Griffin talks, I study him. He seems more youthful than his 40 years, despite the touch of grey creeping into his hair. His manner is friendly, but there’s an undisguised, intellectual, arrogance about him. Perhaps that was learned during his time as a Law undergraduate at Cambridge, or as the son of moneyed parents.
Born 40 years ago in Suffolk, his father Edgar was a right-wing Tory councillor who first took his son to a National Front meeting at the age of 15. A Young Conservative at the time, he soon became hooked.
Studying History and Law at Cambridge University, he became the NF’s national student organiser. After university, he rapidly rose through its ranks to become vice-chairman (and briefly chairman), before helping to split the party with an increasingly erratic agenda. In particular, he talked of unilateral alliances between the NF, the rabidly anti-semitic Louis Farrakhan, Libya’s Colonel Gaddfi, and Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeni. Needless to say, this (and Griffin’s attempts to sell Gaddafi’s Green Book) did not go down too well with the average NF supporter.
Following that, he formed the International Third Position (ITP) with ex-NF colleagues and an Italian neo-Nazi. The ITP advocated a bizarre mix of environmentalism and fundamentalist views, which Griffin left in 1990, to disappear into the political wilderness.
For a few years, he concentrated on raising his family (he has a wife – a nurse, herself an ex-NF national committee member – and four children) and working on his smallholding. He later resurfaced into extremist politics during 1993, and was eventually admitted into the BNP only two years ago, after papering over a series of clashes with the current leader John Tyndall, himself an ex-NF leader.
Griffin’s most recent public activity was to receive a suspended prison sentence at Harrow Crown Court, for racist material produced in his personal magazine, The Rune. To some his response to this case – producing a commercially available tape of his interview with police officers – was further proof of an unbridled arrogance. It didn’t help when he was secretly taped by The Cook Report saying that his former MP, Alex Carlisle QC, was “this bloody Jew...who’s only claim is that his grandparents died in the Holocaust,” after Carlisle had reported the magazine to police.
However, when I push him about all this, he simply laughs. “I would have had a much more comfortable lifestyle if I’d gone on to become a lawyer!” He cites his ‘defence’ of free speech as an example of his commitment to his politics: “I believe in the things I say and write. It’s a matter of personal pride and dignity. I talk about real problems in real areas, rather than use airy fairy terms.”
He likes to see himself as a fair, family man, he says, someone who admits he’s “stubborn”, who enjoys working on the land and is heavily involved in local campaigning issues – such as keeping the local school open, for example. He also believes his neighbours view him as a decent, righteous person. He even has some things in common with “liberal journalists”, he claims (making “liberal” sound like a vicious swear word).
But weren’t you the same man, I ask again, who wrote of the need to create a strong disciplined force, with the ability to back itself “with well-directed boots and fists”? Didn’t you say, as the bricks and broken bottles were being traded on Millwall’s streets some five years ago, that “when the crunch comes, power is the product of force and will, not rational debate” ?
“My past was an experience, primarily,” he tells me, unfazed, settling comfortably. “There were some ideologically crazy periods, but I hope I've learned from my mistakes.” Such as...? He shifts slightly. “Allowing my youthful enthusiasm for perfect ideas to run far beyond what's politically possible. That's the main one.” The tone is smug, final.
And here is the crux, because there’s an almost schizophrenic character to Griffin, and others like him on the extreme right. You talk to one man on the surface, yet view another beneath.
For example, one of Griffin’s allies is a convicted bomber, who also has a conviction for attacking a Jewish school teacher. Griffin himself has struck up a close friendship with William Pierce, arguably America’s most extreme neo-nazi figure, who wrote the infamous Turner Diaries (which inspired Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh).
In 1997 Griffin also wrote Who are the Mindbenders? about Jewish figures dominating the media. He associates with the Holocaust Revisionists, and boasted to an undercover Cook Report team in 1997 that he had updated Richard Verrell’s controversial book on the Holocaust, Did Six Million Really Die? Furthermore, he has regularly written in BNP publications that dropping anti-semitism from their policy is “the kiss of death.” Yet he denies to me that he is anti-semitic.
He even speaks at length to me about how Islam is a “violent religion”, and that Asians are pursing gang violence and ethnic cleansing against whites – until I point out that he has closely associated himself with Islamic extremists in the past.
And then there’s the almost inevitable right wing paranoia about global conspiracy, about how global capitalism is The Enemy: “There are groups which control what goes on – there's the government, the agro-chemical industries, there’s the big landowners who control the NFU, and the European Union.”
The future is uncertain for the likes of Griffin and the BNP. Certainly, they may be able to capitalise on economic uncertainties and confusion over Europe. And Griffin is keen to tell me that the party is growing, up 35 percent year-on-year, but cannot (or will not) produce figures to verify this.
“You only have their word that they’re growing,” says Nick Lowles, co-editor of Searchlight magazine. “They may be growing in South Wales, where Griffin is based, but in other traditional areas, such as London, they’re actually shrinking.”
“In fact,” he remembers, “there were only 300 people at their annual rally last November,” which he attended undercover. “That’s hardly inspiring.”
He adds: “The whole problem for the BNP is race. By its own admission it supports racial nationalism. It can bang on all it likes about the woes of the farmers, or small businesses, but racism is what makes it different, that’s what distinguishes it from the likes of the UK Independence Party or others. Otherwise how else could it claim to be different?”
There are other dangers for Griffin’s route, according to Professor Michael Billig, an expert on far right psychology:
“All I would say is that the comparative success of the Front National in France has had, and continues to have, a major impact on the thinking of the British extreme right. They wonder whether by 'modernising' themselves, and seemingly distancing themselves from extremists, they might be able to expand their support. Interestingly, this debate is going on with the FN right now, with the controversy about replacing Le Pen [and a split in the party].
“The dilemma is that the more 'respectable' they become, the more they risk alienating their hard-core support and the more they resemble right wing conservatives – and thus, they lose their distinctive character. However, this distinctive character condemns them to extreme status.”
Recent press reports have also indicated that Scotland Yard’s new race crimes unit, headed by Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Grieve, is going to crack down hard on the Right. Grieve’s men are planning to build comprehensive files on the leading figures in the far right and their active supporters, using skills developed in the fight against terrorist groups. “We plan to close down these organisations by using every administrative device available to us,” a source was quoted as saying recently.
With the official interview finished, and relaxing with pint in hand, Griffin seems less confident, less self-assured about the future: “I've been more or less at the top before and believe me, it's a lonely place,” he confides.
Yet as quickly as he’s said it, he scrambles to reassert the earlier bravado: “The BNP is going to win Euro seats and you’ll see BNP councillors established in local areas (within five years). We’ve got potential mass support in every part of the country.”
And in a final parting shot, he adds: “You can pretend the BNP is nazi, but when thousands of people continue to vote for it, you won’t be able to label all of them as neo-nazis. It just won’t be practical.”
This story was commissioned for The Times Magazine © 1999
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Racial Pride and Prejudice, my very first news story about Nick Griffin, carried in The Independent newspaper.